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Tuesday, 14 February 2006
Page: 150

Mrs ELLIOT (6:49 PM) —Before I address Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2005-2006 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2005-2006, I would like put on record how incredibly proud I am to be the member for Richmond. It is a culturally rich and very beautiful place to live. Those who live there can often overwhelm us with their warmth and generosity. I was not surprised that, in a recent study by Deakin University, Richmond was found to be the happiest electorate in New South Wales and the second happiest in the whole country. The people of Richmond know that this is because they have an incredibly strong connection to the community. Richmond has a lot of people dedicated to community work and a strong community spirit. We have a huge number of individuals and groups who give up their time and resources to reach out and help others—the sick, the old, the young, the disabled and the lonely. We have many committed community groups who work so hard to preserve our beautiful environment. Our locals are passionate and committed to many important local, national and international issues. I would like to commend all the people of Richmond for their strong community spirit.

Despite this incredible community spirit, we have many challenges because we have seen again and again over the last decade how the Howard government has failed the people of Richmond. By not having a vision for our great country, this short-sighted government has failed to invest in the things that make a community great, such as health care, aged care, education, training and the environment. Despite the strength, talent and hard work of locals, the reality is that Richmond has 10,000 families who earn less than $500 a week. We have soaring youth unemployment, a skills crisis and cuts in federal spending on our TAFE colleges and universities. We have a significant shortage of GPs, including GPs who bulk-bill.

Twenty per cent of Richmond’s population is aged over 65. Inadequate funding for aged care and constant cuts to the PBS make it very difficult for elderly residents. This government’s shameful record, particularly when it comes to health, affects many in this demographic in my electorate. There are many pressures on local seniors, especially the 13,000 on fixed pensions. As I said, 20 per cent of the population is aged over 65—one of the highest proportions in the country—so our health needs are major.

There is a national crisis in our health workforce and the Howard government is showing no real signs of leadership to fix the problem. With an ageing population, this situation will only get worse. Every day, locals are telling me about the difficulties they have in finding a GP, let alone one who bulk-bills. The monitoring of full-time equivalent GP numbers by the Department of Health and Ageing shows a critical shortage across the nation, with many of the costly programs thought up by the Minister for Health and Ageing having very little impact—and we see that on the ground in Richmond. The national average ratio of people per full-time equivalent GP has hit 1,451. The government’s own recommended figure is closer to 1,000 people per GP.

The Department of Health and Ageing regards areas with a ratio of more than 1,400 as an area of need under the More Doctors for Outer Metropolitan Areas program. The ratio in Richmond is 1,314. In the neighbouring electorate of Page, the ratio is especially dire at 1,589. Given that the Northern Rivers area has one of the highest proportions of elderly people in the country, this crisis has worsened, as the demand for GPs obviously increases with age. Local GPs have told me that when they are seeing a large number of elderly people the demands on them are much greater.

While GP numbers are dwindling as a result of an underinvestment by the Howard government in university places and GP training places, the current workforce is also getting older. More than 30 per cent of GPs are aged over 55 years, an increase of 10 per cent since 1996. The number of GPs under 35 years has decreased by 17 per cent since 1996, when the Howard government cut GP training places. The problem is even worse in regional areas because new GPs prefer to stay in cities and the Howard government does not provide enough incentives to attract them to areas of need.

The situation is exacerbated by the enormous HECS debts that young doctors now have when they leave university. They often have little choice but to stay in the cities to earn more and pay off these huge debts. They cannot afford to move to regional areas and there are no incentives for them to come to regional areas. The Howard government continues to rely on importing overseas trained doctors. At the last election, the major workforce policy from the health minister was to import 150 GPs every year to areas of need without additional support programs or a national competence measure.

The Productivity Commission in its health workforce report calls for the Howard government to provide leadership when it comes to addressing the critical shortage in the health workforce. The message to the government is clear: invest in universities, train more GPs, train Australians first and train them now. We see first-hand in Richmond how difficult this situation is with our ageing population.

Another major impact upon the ageing in particular in my electorate is this government’s attack on the PBS. It really does put the health of the local elderly at risk. One particular example that I would like to speak about is the removal of calcium from the PBS that we saw last year. There was a huge outcry in relation to this, particularly in my electorate. There was a major forum that many people attended to voice their concerns. There was a major campaign to have calcium reinstated on the PBS. Because of this huge community campaign and because of the pressure that was put on the health minister, it was returned for renal conditions but not for osteoporosis. Of course, people suffering from osteoporosis—or those who want to prevent it, as we have been told we have to do—desperately need to have access to calcium. It is absolutely shameful that the Howard government does not put calcium back on the PBS for those suffering from osteoporosis.

We also saw changes in last year’s budget that greatly impact pensioners, who now have to wait until they use 54 scripts a year before they are entitled to free medicine, with it going up to 60 by 2009. We also saw an increase in the Medicare safety net, even after the health minister’s rock solid, ironclad guarantee that it was not going to happen. These all greatly impact upon my electorate.

Another major health issue of huge significance in Richmond is dental health. There is a dire need for federal funding for dental health and, under the Constitution, it is indeed a responsibility of the federal government. As we all know, the Howard government scrapped the $100 million a year Commonwealth dental health scheme. The reality is that dental health affects your overall health, so it is so important that people are able to access it. The minister for health himself has said in relation to Labor’s dental health scheme:

The Keating government’s program did reduce waiting times. No doubt about that.

So why doesn’t he restore the funding? That is the reality—we need to have federal funding back to fix this problem. There are only about 240 public dentists to cater for more than 2.5 million health care card holders, children and the elderly across Australia. This compares with more than 3,000 private dentists that treat the rest of the population. We always hear the Howard government blaming the states. I am sick of their buck-passing. It is time for them to fix the problem. It is their responsibility under the Constitution, and they are obligated to provide this dental health care.

With an elderly population, aged care is another major issue within my electorate. More funding is needed for aged care, and it needs to be spent in the right places. So many people, of course, want to be able to stay in their homes, so we need to have a lot more money for CAPS and EACH packages to be adequately providing home care for those people. Many people are telling me how long they have to wait. They will be assessed and then often have to wait months and months before they get home care.

We also need more beds in our nursing homes. Indeed, our local aged care system is in crisis and the government has abandoned our elderly. When you look at Richmond, 20 per cent of our population is aged over 65. Current projections say that this will be our nation’s population in 40 years time. We will be looking at the same percentage, so we have a chance in Richmond to get right what we are going to be facing as a nation in 40 years time. But the Howard government has missed an opportunity to fix the problems on the ground now in preparation for the future.

It is not only our elderly but also our sick who are not being cared for properly by this government. Because of this government’s mean-spiritedness, often the responsibility to care for our needy falls on our tireless and underfunded volunteer and community organisations. One such organisation is the Tweed Palliative Support group. This group is coordinated by the Tweed Shire Council citizen of the year, Meredith Dennis, who won the award for her outstanding contribution to our community as the volunteer coordinator of the group. I have seen first-hand Meredith’s dedication and commitment to the dying. She and her team of volunteers do a remarkable job delivering support and in-home care for the terminally ill. They do this with immense sensitivity and dignity. That is why it was so outrageous that the Howard government recently knocked back its application for funding to purchase a support vehicle. Meredith was using her own car to visit these people who were terminally ill. It was a true testimony to our local community when they got behind Meredith’s plight, with our local clubs coming together to donate a vehicle. I certainly commend them, but it in no way excuses this government’s meanness and lack of support for these community groups.

I want to speak now on behalf of all the young people in my electorate who are facing a future of limited choice because of the Howard government’s refusal to address the skills crisis in this country. Youth unemployment in Richmond is at a staggering 30 per cent. This arrogant, short-sighted government has continually ignored warnings from the Reserve Bank and industry groups about a massive skills crisis in this country, and our young people are bearing the brunt of it. The sad truth is that, instead of investing in education and training, the Prime Minister wants us to compete with low-wage economies like China and India by reducing Australian wages. This out-of-touch government thinks it can address the skills shortage and youth unemployment with its backward and extreme industrial relations changes—changes that will strip workers of their rights, slash their wages and leave the most vulnerable, including the unemployed, the young, the old and the unskilled, on their own to negotiate their conditions with their bosses. This strategy not only is economically irresponsible but also will undermine the very way of life that Australians are so proud of.

Our education and training system was set up to support and prepare young people to reach their full potential in their adult working lives, yet the Howard government systematically ripped funding and investment out of this system, making it harder for our kids to access the education and training they will need to prepare them for the future. After a decade of the Howard government refusing to properly invest in vocational education and training, we are now seeing situations of $100,000 degrees. We are seeing 300,000 Australians turned away from TAFE each year. This is an outrageous situation.

The latest financial reports show that the federal government’s spending on skills development increased by a measly 0.8 per cent in 2004. In contrast to that, federal Labor is serious about education and has a vision for our future. We need to compete with overseas developing economies by addressing our skills crisis and building the skills of Australian workers, and that is why Labor is designing strong, practical measures to ensure our kids have affordable education and training choices, like providing free TAFE for traditional apprenticeships, creating more real apprenticeships, providing more incentives to train apprentices in areas of skills shortage and offering young people better choices by teaching trades, technology and science in first-class facilities. Australian businesses, students and workers deserve a government that is serious about addressing our skills crisis and serious about investing in vocational education and training.

Another major issue is the lack of accessibility to and affordability of child care in Richmond. This creates a huge problem for so many families within my electorate. The government is forcing many single parents back to work, but of course it is not providing adequate child care for those children. Also, another major issue is after school care and vacation care. There is only one after-school care centre in Tweed, and it is already full. We desperately need more after school and vacation places, as well as a greater investment in child care.

The environment is another major issue in the Richmond electorate that we feel very strongly about. All Australians deserve to live in a healthy environment with clean air and water, safe food and healthy ecosystems. Without a doubt, climate change is the most serious environmental challenge facing our local and global community. From this government we need to see policies that focus on shifting energy use and production to clean and efficient sources. Yet tragically, despite warnings from the scientific community, we have had a decade of inaction by the Howard government. But federal Labor is serious about climate change and will take practical steps to face this global crisis.

Firstly, we must ratify the Kyoto protocol. The vast majority of countries in the world have signed the protocol, Australia and the USA being notable exceptions. Australia’s per capita emissions are the highest in the world. Alarmingly, the Australian Greenhouse Office predicts that Australia’s emissions will rapidly rise to be 123 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020. The Howard government is making Australia an international disgrace when it comes to environmental concerns. We have to do our bit globally and sign Kyoto, we need to establish a national emissions trading scheme and we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by supporting green energy like wind and solar power and increasing our mandatory renewable energy target to five per cent. This will also serve to create regional jobs and foster the development of an internationally competitive renewable energy technology export industry.

We also need a strategy that will support our Pacific neighbours under the effects of global warming. Their future is most uncertain as they face rising sea levels, more extreme weather events and a collapsing environment. As a result, some of our neighbouring island nations will be flooded and uninhabitable. Climate change threatens our health, our economy, our natural resources and our children’s future. Delaying action for a decade is no longer an option; we have to see action on this. We have had a decade of the Howard government continually refusing to invest in the systems that strengthen our nation, our economy and our community—issues such as health, education and training, aged care and infrastructure.

I am calling on this government to stop looking after its own interests and to start listening to and addressing the needs of everyday Australians like those in my electorate of Richmond. We need to provide for the health of our families and our seniors so that they can get to a GP and get the dental work they so desperately need. We must address our national skills crisis and our soaring youth unemployment. We must look after our elderly and provide access to decent, affordable aged care facilities. We must support our working families with decent, affordable child care, and we must protect our environment and natural heritage and address climate change. These are the basics that underpin a great nation and these are the kinds of policies that we need to be delivering for Australians. Instead, we have seen massive inaction from the Howard government over the last 10 years that is greatly impacting upon my electorate.

As I said at the outset, we were rated as the second happiest community within Australia and the happiest within New South Wales. That is because of the great work that our community groups do and because of the great strength and the community spirit that we have.

Mr McMullan —It’s your great representation!

Mrs ELLIOT —It is certainly the community that are wonderful. In particular, we have so many groups right across the board who care for people. One group in particular is Twin Towns Friends and its marvellous coordinator, Doreen Welsh. She runs a volunteer group and they visit elderly people in their homes. They receive no funding at all. As I say, it is a volunteer group. Doreen is just fantastic. Day after day, she goes out visiting people. We have so many people who move to our area. They retire here. Often their spouse becomes ill. They do not have a lot of family living close by and it is groups like these that spend all their time visiting them and providing that great community support. We have so many groups right across the board throughout the entire electorate that are so committed and that do such a wonderful job. It is this that forms the basis of a strong community.

As I have said, all we have seen from the Howard government is inaction right across the board, which is outrageous. We have to provide so much more for those within our community who so desperately need it. We have also seen—and I hear this all the time in the area of the Northern Rivers—the National Party abandon rural and regional Australia, which is a concern to so many people. We have seen them selling out on issues like Telstra and industrial relations. Lately, we have seen them involved in so much infighting and being concerned about themselves. I am afraid they are a spent force in representing regional and rural Australia. It is a concern that people raise with me constantly. The reality is that they are not able to represent people within these areas.

The reality is that we need to have so much funding within these vital areas right across the board. As I said earlier, 20 per cent of our population is aged over 65. If we do not start addressing these issues now, the crisis that we are seeing in Richmond particularly in areas like aged care and health care we will be seeing right across the nation. We need to be formulating plans, particularly with the baby boomers retiring, to make sure that we can adequately provide as people are ageing. Instead, we have not seen the government addressing any of these issues at all.

The issue of youth unemployment that members spoke about earlier is also of major concern. Particularly in regional areas, the options for young people are so limited. So many families tell me now that the option of their child going to university is just not on their radar anymore. They just cannot access HECS fees at all. There is a lack of training and employment opportunities for them. It is unfortunate that so many of them will have to move away, which is very difficult. They do not have the financial resources to do that. We need to keep people within our areas, staying with their communities and also their families. It is so vitally important.

I would also like to commend the community who also work so hard to preserve our local environment. We have a beautiful pristine area. A quote that we often hear from locals is, ‘We don’t want to be like the Gold Coast.’ That is because we do not. We are a very unique area and we want to maintain that. We want to sustain and preserve that for the future.